Tag Archives: parliamentary committees

We have a window of opportunity to improve Scottish devolution, so let’s start with parliamentary reform

Now is the perfect time to think about maximising the benefits of Scottish devolution. The first independence referendum produced important new constitutional changes, enshrined in the Scotland Act 2016. It now seems unlikely that there will be a second referendum any time soon. So, we have a window of opportunity to take a step back, understand the Scottish Government’s new powers, and consider how the Scottish Parliament can best hold it to account, encourage new voices in politics, and represent the views of the public. In other words, to think about how devolution’s original aims, summed up by the phrase ‘new politics’ (as compared at the time to ‘old Westminster’).

The Scottish Parliament is now a mature institution, supported strongly by the public, and here to stay. In the early years of devolution, it is understandable that there was more concern about public support and the financial cost of enhanced Scottish democracy. Now, it is time to start looking to the future, to note the Parliament’s success to date, and build on examples of good practice to make it as effective as possible as it takes on new responsibilities.

Commission report

The Commission on Parliamentary Reform has been doing just that. It was set up by the Presiding Officer, Ken Macintosh MSP, with John McCormick its chair and consisting of representatives of all main parties. Although asked to give the Parliament an ‘MOT’, a metaphor which might suggest that the fewer issues raised the better, the Commission came up with a series of measures to turbo boost the Parliament.

To strengthen the role of the Scottish Parliament, it recommends:

  • A more assertive role for the Presiding Officer, to control parliamentary business and encourage more effective scrutiny and debate.
  • Leaner and stronger committees, led by elected convenors, and more able to set the political agenda rather than simply respond to the government.
  • More independent MSPs, trained to be parliamentarians first and representatives of political parties second.

To enhance the Parliament’s equality and diversity principles, it recommends:

  • Establishing a vision for an equal and diverse parliament, setting benchmarks for MSP recruitment from under-represented groups, backed up by measures to influence political party recruitment.

To engage in new ways with the public and give ‘the people’ a voice, it recommends:

  • That the Parliament becomes a world leader in public engagement, experimenting with new ways to gather views and evidence, identifying the most excluded groups and ways to overcome barriers to engagement, and working with schools to encourage greater knowledge of the Scottish Parliament.

A big part of this shift of thinking should be about the ways in which we describe and appreciate MSPs. If elected politics should not be the part-time occupation of people with independent wealth and a larger income from other jobs, we should make sure it provides the kinds of pay and conditions that we’d take for granted in other parts of the public sector. If politics is a profession that requires particular skills which improve with experience, we should be more hesitant about complaining about a political class full of MSPs that never had a ‘proper job’. If we expect MSPs to work incredibly hard for their constituents and engage fully in Parliament, we should note that they routinely work well over the 35 hours we’d associate with most other public sector jobs, often at the expense of their long term health and life outside work. We should also be realistic about what we can expect from MSPs if the Scottish Parliament is to retain its ‘family friendly’ aims and allow MSPs to balance work and life.

This argument about appreciating MSPs should help us take an interesting story from the report. It doesn’t say that we should trade responsibilities and rights, but that we should place as much emphasis on their rights as we should their responsibilities.

So, it provides a series of recommendations which ask MSPs to reconsider their responsibilities to the Scottish Parliament, to focus a little bit less on partisanship and a bit more on the Parliament as an institution. We should expect MSPs to honour their responsibilities to the Parliament, to engage in parliamentary work as parliamentarians (particularly in committees), not simply representatives of their parties, and to help improve the quality of Scottish policy, not simply criticise policy from the Scottish Government.

It also suggests that MSPs deserve comparable employment rights to any other public employees, including the positive moves – such as parental leave and workplace flexibility – that help us remain effective at work and practice ‘self care’ and care for others. In fact, as a beacon for Scottish democracy, the Scottish Parliament should also be a beacon of progressiveness, turning its founding commitment to a ‘family friendly’ culture into best practice for all MSPs with caring and other personal responsibilities.  Further, MSPs should not have to apologise for being paid fairly while working hard for the Parliament or when claiming legitimate funds to support their work.

It is in that spirit that I’d suggest reading key parts of the report. Yes, the commission makes strong recommendations for important reforms in parliamentary rules and MSP behaviour. However, it also invites us to remember that the Parliament is here to stay, and a lot of the credit for its success should go to the people who work there.

The full report can be found here: https://parliamentaryreform.scot/

Paul Cairney is Professor of Politics and Public Policy at the University of Stirling. From January to June 2017 he was the advisor to the Commission on Parliamentary Reform, but these are his personal thoughts on the report.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Scottish politics

Scottish Parliament committees: when radical change isn’t radical change

You can find some very useful suggestions for Scottish Parliament committee reform in the summary and full speech (2015) by former Presiding Officer Tricia Marwick. They follow some useful suggestions by the Consultative Steering Group, which set out its plans for the committees in 1998.

The theme in both cases is: let’s find a way for the Scottish Parliament to be important, and for business-like committees (not partisan plenary debate) to be at the heart of its operation. Put more critically: let’s produce some good structures or reforms in the hope that political parties don’t act like political parties.

So, while the CSG expressed some hopes that the committees would perform a new role consistent with Scottish Constitutional Convention’s hopes for ‘new politics’ (‘more participative, more creative, less needlessly confrontational’), Marwick perhaps expresses some disappointment that it didn’t work out too well.

That said, Marwick’s suggestions get to the heart of many practical limits to the operation of committees. To demonstrate, look first at the way I summarised parliamentary life so far (for the Sunday Post):

“The Scottish Parliament’s committees have always suffered from a gap between expectations and reality. When the Scottish Parliament was introduced, there were high hopes that it would function far more effectively than Westminster. The architects of devolution rejected a second chamber in favour of a powerful unicameral Parliament with committees at the heart. To make up for the lack of a revising chamber, they front-loaded the legislative scrutiny process, with committees tasked first to consider the principles, then amend, draft bills. To reinforce committee power, they made many of them permanent, and gave committees the functions of two different kinds of Westminster committee – Standing (to scrutinise legislation) and Select (to monitor government departments and ministers). They have the ability to hold agenda setting inquiries, monitor the quality of Scottish Government consultation, and initiate legislation. The idea is that committees become specialist and business-like (leave your party membership at the door) and their members become experts, able to hold the government to account, and provide alternative ideas if dissatisfied with the government’s response.

The reality rarely lives up to the rhetoric. The party system still dominates, with MSPs whipped to ensure government control of parliamentary business (apart from the brief period of minority government from 2007-11). Parties control committee membership and have overseen a large turnover, which undermines MSP expertise. The committees are ill-resourced, and they struggle to generate the amount of information they need to perform scrutiny well. So, it is no surprise that committees struggle to keep on top of the evidence given to them. They have the ability to do little more than one piece of work before moving on to the next”.

Marwick’s suggestions at least address the latter points

Scottish Parliament committees are ill-resourced and their MSPs are spread too thin. They will often serve more than one committee and move between committees – which, if combined with high MSP turnover in every election, undermines their ability to become specialists in their field. So, Marwick recommended a smaller number of larger committees to reduce that thin spread and encourage more effective scrutiny.

Marwick also pushed for elected convenors to address the problem of committee/ government distance. Right now, the governing party can appoint its share of convenors (and members) and ensure that there is little distance between the governing/ scrutiny roles. The Scottish Parliament is also small and there is not the same chance (as in Westminster) to make a career out of being a backbencher/ convenor of committee. Electing those roles would make convenors ‘directly accountable to Parliament’ rather than subject to the whims of parties (maybe).

These moves would represent radical reforms in the Scottish Parliament, but …

I wonder if anyone outside of Holyrood would notice the difference. Certainly, they would not radically change the fairly traditional Westminster-style relationship between government and parliament in which the government governs and the parliament struggles to provide scrutiny with limited resources. Nor would they change the very strong tendency for MSPs to act along party lines. You can train new MSPs in the ways of the parliament (an abstract concept that takes time to appreciate), but also expect them to be socialised and whipped by their parties (a concrete process that you’ll be expected to recognise immediately).

These reforms would take place during a time of diminishing parliamentary influence

In a Political Quarterly article, I identify two aspects of devolution that may diminish the Scottish Parliament’s role in the near future:

  1. further devolution from the UK to Scotland will see the Scottish Parliament scrutinise more issues with the same paltry resources
  2. further devolution from the Scottish Government to local public bodies will see the Scottish Parliament less able to gather enough information to perform effective scrutiny.

Both issues highlight the further potential for the Scottish Parliament, heralded as a body to ‘share power’ with the government and ‘the people’, to play a peripheral role in the policy process. To all intents and purposes, the new Scotland Act will devolve more responsibilities to Scottish ministers, without a proportionate increase in parliamentary resources to keep tabs on what ministers do with those powers.

Perhaps more importantly, the Scottish Parliament can only really keep tabs on broad Scottish Government strategies. What happens when it devolves more policymaking powers to local public bodies, such as the health boards that give limited information to committees and the local authorities that claim their own electoral mandate?

In other words, the proposed reforms address the practical limits to parliamentary influence at a time when those limits are being further tested.

Are there any issues on which the parties can agree?

They also don’t really solve the problem of partisanship, which means (for example) that it will be difficult to get the parties to agree about the kinds of issues they should examine in depth. To be effective as a group, MSPs really need to prompt the Scottish Government to do something (perhaps more quickly) that it already wants to do, or find an issue that transcends party politics (perhaps such as the representation of women in the Scottish Parliament, as part of an inquiry into the extent to which it represents important social groups). In most cases, this won’t happen.

So, let’s welcome some parliamentary reform but be realistic about its effect.

[I discussed these issues briefly on Good Morning Scotland, 10.5.16 at 7.07am. It’s true – ask my cousin. He heard the whole thing.]

3 Comments

Filed under Scottish politics